How long, she asked, creaking and groaning on her knees under the bed, dusting the boards, how long shall it endure? but hobbled to her feet again, pulled herself up, and again with her sidelong leer which slipped and turned aside even from her own face, and her own sorrows, stood and gaped in the glass, aimlessly smiling, and began again the old amble and hobble, taking up mats, putting down china, looking sideways in the glass, as if, after all, she had her consolations, as if indeed there twined about her dirge some incorrigible hope.
–Virginia Woolf, from To the Lighthouse
Poets think in lines, prose writers in sentences; the best of both work from sound to sense, with an ear for the music in their compositions. S for Sentence celebrates lyricism in prose, the play and craft at work in the artful sentence. We post a sentence a month along with comments by a guest writer on the craft that shapes it, on what makes it great. In one or two sentences.
—Pearl Abraham, Editor
The rhythm here is what we notice first: it powers this entire section of the novel, “Time Passes,” as well as this long, loping sentence. The rhythm is relentless, precisely like the sea, always returning, and precisely like time, moving forward with or without us, which is the sentence’s (somewhat) buried subject. The ‘she’ is Mrs. McNab, elderly caretaker of the Ramsay’s house, which she is preparing for the family’s return after many years of dereliction. Mrs. McNab’s question: how long shall it endure? features an intentionally ambiguous subject; we can read ‘it’ alternatively as – how long will her work last – or, how long will the world last. Of course, Mrs. McNab could be asking how long she herself will last, because there is no metaphysical difference between herself and the world: once she is gone, so too the world. The novel is infused with these collapses – of meaning and of sound: twined and dirge, dirge and hope, dirge and incorrigible – which leave this reader suspended between intellect and feeling, wondering whether Woolf hasn’t somehow intuited what it feels like to no longer be alive.
–Stephanie Grant is the author of The Passion of Alice and Map of Ireland